Azerbaijan International

Autumn 1997 (5.3)
Page 50-51

Cinema in Azerbaijan

I began working in film back in 1959 when I was 16. Those were the days of youth and exuberance. I think it's fair to say that my involvement in film for nearly 40 years has been driven by curiosity, passion and the desire to excel. Clearly then, my remarks are motivated by romanticism and love for cinema, although years of experience and analysis also play a role.

Today's Realities
Young cinematographers these days are having to get used to a new reality since we've gained our independence. Our state has chosen to enter the world's market economy which requires, first of all, that people rid themselves of socialistic expectations, especially parasitism, and their passive reliance on the State to solve their problems. But, it seems, such concepts don't penetrate our brains very quickly. It's going to take a total mental restructuring before this happens.

Today, within the framework of independence, cinematographers are having to cope with a whole range of household, economic and moral problems. They must face these problems realistically. The concept of market economy is not something that we can comprehend all at once. We need time to get used to the idea.

Foreign journalists often ask whether the conditions related to cinema have improved or worsened since independence. I always compare our current situation to a patient undergoing surgery to save his life. The patient suffers considerably during the operative and postoperative stages, but then, due to timely intervention, there's a great likelihood that he will recover.

Today, Azerbaijan is in the midst of trying to solve a tremendous number of political and economical problems. It is impossible for us to forget, even for a second, about the monstrous burden lying on our shoulders as a result of the political game which brought on this war in Nagorno-Karabakh and all its destruction, including the hundreds of thousands of refugees that have been displaced from their lands. Nor can we forget about the illegal, humiliating annexation of 20 percent of our territory by Armenians.

Solving Political and Economic Problems
Our entire cultural scene, and especially cinema as one of its main components, is experiencing tremendous difficulties. Nevertheless, there is no reason to speak about the disappearance or demise of cinema. Heydar Aliyev, Azerbaijan's President, recently met with a group of cinematographers over lunch and observed that despite the difficult economic period, filmmakers have not lost their ability to survive. It's true.

But today in Azerbaijan, cinema is only able to function due to the financial support of the government. How ironic! It's really quite paradoxical! The market economy was supposed to bring private investments to filmmaking and enable us to re-equip our technical production base and modernize our cinema houses. Yet, still, we are totally dependent upon the central government for everything.

According to our technical and creative potential, we should be able to produce about 12 movies a year. But at present, we struggle to make two or three; with luck, we sometimes manage four.

The Competition
Are we competitive today in the context of the world market? No doubt about it, we are surrounded by giants. American films have planetary distribution, high technical standards and ideal methods to attract a broad audience. And European cinema is closely identified with its high level of spiritual and aesthetic qualities. Add to that the universal phenomenon of television serials which hypnotize housewives sitting for hours in front of the TV set with a cup of tepid coffee. We could go on adding to the list of giants with which we have to compete. But the truth remains, there are no large or small cultures. Nobody can ever prove that the sombrero is superior to the Jewish prayer cap, or that the sound of bagpipes is more convincing than a piccolo.

World culture and cinematography are searching for universals and for ways of drawing people together that can be understood by different nationalities and ethnicities. World culture consists of a phenomenal set of interacting, interrelational differences. On the other hand, we must guard against standardization which has the capability of killing culture. No culture can afford self-annihilation.

It's been gratifying to us that recently when Azerbaijani films have been entered into various international festivals and conferences, considerable interest has been generated by the audience, researchers, press and critics. Usually, our films receive some sort of international award and recognition. For example, the recent film "Strange Time" by Husein Mehdiyev won the gold prize in Madrid this past year for the best production.

Limited Budgets
During a recent conversation with a French colleague, I was asked how much money we had spent in making one of our films. When I told him, he couldn't believe how limited our budget was. He asked me to repeat the sum. Then he commented that such a small figure would not have even paid for cosmetics and make-up in a Hollywood film. But I don't agree with this strange idea that the quality of a work of art is in direct correlation to its financial investment.

We all know that we face immense problems in Azerbaijan when it comes to cinematography. We must find solutions. We must develop our own cinematographic educational system and build our own technical animation production. We have to reconstruct our cinema houses and make them modern so as to attract contemporary audiences again. We must find ways to develop partnerships to finance and co-produce our projects so that we can sell and distribute our films and optimize profits.

That's our plan of action for tomorrow-the future. But, today, even in the midst of the birth pangs of our new nation, we realize that cinematography is critically important for social development within our country. Recently, about 30 applications were submitted in competition for the development of full-length films. I trust this figure reflects the real potential of our capabilities and our ability to utilize various styles and genres.

Eventually, from these applications, four films have been selected for development this year (1997). They include (1) "Family" (screenwriter Rustam Ibrahimbeyov, director Oleg Safaraliyev), (2) "Number at the Hotel" (screenwriter Anar, producer Rasim Ojagov), (3) "This Beautiful, Beautiful World" (screenwriters Eldar Guliyev and Natig Rasulzade, producer Eldar Guliyev) and (4) "Who is Dead, Who is Alive" (screenwriter Ramiz Roshan, producers Ramiz Mirzayev and Ramiz Azizbeyli).

We struggle today but look forward with great anticipation to tomorrow.

Ogtay Mirgasimov, film director, lives in Baku.

From Azerbaijan International (5.3) Autumn 1997.
© Azerbaijan International 1997. All rights reserved.

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